Peter in Prison: a Story of Miraculous Deliverance

From the very beginning, powerful forces opposed the church. The Jewish religious authorities wanted to stamp it out and the Roman authorities wanted to keep the Jews happy. The apostles found themselves in a challenging position between these two groups. It's this dynamic that leads to the arrest of Peter—and the amazing story of his escape.

Let's take a look at Peter's story and a few lessons we can take from it.

Peter arrested by Herod

It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover (Acts 12:1–4).

To help us get oriented, let's take a closer look at who arrested Peter and when it happened.

Is this Herod the Great or someone else?

When it comes to the name Herod in the New Testament, it can be a little tricky. You might think that this Herod was the same one that had all the boys under two years old killed in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16–18). But that was actually Herod the Great. And it also wasn't the Herod that had John the Baptist locked up (and executed); that was Herod the Great's son, Herod Antipas.

The Herod Luke talks about here is Herod Agrippa. This is Herod the Great's grandson. He became King of Judea under Caesar Caligula (AD 41–44). Herod Agrippa ingratiated himself to the Jews by facilitating their persecution of Christians. As soon as he has the apostle James killed (John's brother and part of Jesus' inner circle), his approval rating with the Jews goes through the roof. So he doubles down.

Herod Agrippa was raised among the aristocracy in Rome, and this put him at odds with the Jews in Jerusalem. So it's no wonder that when one of his actions is applauded by the more conservative factions of Jews in Judea, he'd continue down that route.

The Feast of Unleavened Bread

The Feast of Unleavened Bread is a week-long celebration similar to Passover (which only lasts one day). Arresting someone during a feast celebration made a huge public display of the arrest and sent valuable messages.

To the anti-Christian Jewish contingent, Herod was saying, "I know this is an important issue for you, and I'm going to take care of it." And to the Christians, he was saying, "I'm going after your leaders, and I intend to wipe this movement out. It's best to distance yourself from it."

The fact that Herod put Peter under such a heavy watch communicated how seriously he was taking this Christian movement.

Peter's imprisonment and escape

So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.

The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. "Quick, get up!" he said, and the chains fell off Peter's wrists (Acts 12:5–7).

Not leaving anything to chance

Luke wants us to understand that Peter was public enemy number one. He wasn't just being held in a cell. He was chained between two guards while two others stood watch. This wasn't normal. There just wasn't enough manpower to treat all prisoners this way. This was for the most dangerous criminals because the only way they could escape is if they were working with the guards.

It's hard to know how long Peter was imprisoned. Luke tells us that the angelic visit happened the night before Peter's trial. But we do know that the entire church was earnestly praying for him.

Luke's Gospel and most of the Book of Acts were compiled from eyewitness accounts (Luke 1:1–3). In the 16th chapter of Acts, Luke starts using the first-person plural pronouns like "we" and "us." So it's obvious that Luke had joined Paul. Up until then, these accounts come from testimony.

So Luke had to have received this story from Peter, or someone who Peter had relayed this story to. This is helpful to know because it tells us what Peter found essential about the story. For instance, it's kind of humorous that Peter doesn't tell us that the angel simply woke him, but that the angel struck him. You can almost imagine Peter laughing saying, "And all the sudden, I feel something hitting me and when I opened my eyes …"

Peter and the angel

Then the angel said to him, "Put on your clothes and sandals." And Peter did so. "Wrap your cloak around you and follow me," the angel told him. Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him (Acts 12:8–10).

It's obvious that Peter is the only one who is awake. The guards are still fast asleep.

Peter is barely awake, and in this state, he doesn't know if he's having a vision or if this is actually happening right now. The angel accompanies the disciple out of the prison, supernaturally opening chains and gates, and when Peter is on the street, the angel disappears.

Peter heads to Mary's home

Then Peter came to himself and said, "Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod's clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen."

When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer the door. When she recognized Peter's voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, "Peter is at the door" (Acts 12:11–14)!

Suddenly Peter is on the street in the dark, and he realizes that this wasn't a vision. The Lord has delivered him from his incarceration—and what would have been certain execution at Herod's hand.

Peter decides to head to a gathering of believers at Mary's home. Mary is the mother of John Mark, a young man who will play a prominent role in the early church. It's John Mark who accompanied Paul and Barnabus on their first missionary journey, deciding to go home before the mission was finished (Acts 13:13). When Barnabus wants Mark to accompany them on a future mission, Paul refuses and the ensuing disagreement between the two causes a rift between Barnabus and Paul (Acts 15:36–41).

John Mark and Paul eventually reconcile, and he also spends significant time with Peter. Some early church testimony credits the Gospel of Mark to John Mark. Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis in the second century, wrote about a first-century tradition that John Mark worked as a scribe for Peter, documenting the apostle's experiences in his gospel.

Another interesting detail that must have come through Peter is the fact that Rhoda was so excited to hear Peter's voice at the door that she ran back to inform the house, leaving the apostle standing outside.

Peter informs the church of his escape

"You’re out of your mind," they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, "It must be his angel."

But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. "Tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this," he said, and then he left for another place.

In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed (Acts 12:15–19).

It's pretty humorous that these believers have been gathered and praying for Peter's deliverance, but when it happens, they refuse to believe it. Peter is left in the street to bang on the door. When they finally realize that Rhoda was correct, they just can't believe it.

Peter tells them the story, and instructs them to tell James, the brother of Jesus, and the other believers. The fact that he singles out James demonstrates the important role they give him after Jesus' ascension.

Then we get to this story's tragic ending. The guards who were responsible for Peter are interviewed. Since Peter was chained between them and they bore the responsibility for his imprisonment, his escape was their fault. They were all executed.

3 Lessons from Peter's Incarceration

Luke writes his Gospel and Acts to inform a man named Theophilus about what Jesus did, who Jesus was, and how the church came to be. But throughout their many stories, there are little things we can pick up from the narrative.

Here are a few helpful lessons we can glean from this moment in Peter's life.

1. Alignment to Jesus leads to persecution

Jesus made it clear that His followers would experience persecution (John 15:19–20). You might not live in a part of the world where following Jesus promises imprisonment or death, but persecution takes many forms. It could be the loss of family or friends, or it might even cost you employment.

If you never experience maltreatment from following Jesus, be thankful. Many do all over the world. And this is an important thing to remember when we're sharing the good news. If we present the gospel as all benefits and zero challenges, we're not doing people any favors.

2. Prayer makes a difference

There's no question that Luke wants us to associate the prayers of the saints with Peter's escape. Prayer is powerful and effective, and we cannot forget that the Lord loves us and works through the prayers of His people.

3. Ours is a supernatural faith

The word supernatural comes from the Latin words super (above or beyond) and naturam (nature). Supernatural points at things that are beyond what we experience around us all the time. Christianity is a supernatural faith because it points to realities beyond what we experience.

In our daily lives, we don't experience things like angels appearing and disappearing out of nowhere, chains falling off, and locked gates swinging open of their own accord. But believing the Bible and following Jesus becomes difficult (if not impossible) if we do not believe there is more to the universe than what we've personally experienced.

Get to know Acts in a whole new way

Brush up on the church's origins by watching the dramatic Book of Acts film. This complete and powerful retelling of this moment in history features stellar performances and accurate sets. Watch at JesusFilm.org or on the Jesus Film app available on Apple and Android.

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